Gamification and Your Goals

While it isn’t easy to turn strength training into a game, if we break down the psychological benefits identified in gamification theory, we can, perhaps, access intrinsic motivation principles and bring them into our fitness goals. At the heart of most decisions to pick up a barbell is the desire for self-actualization. Gamified motivation results from three needs: 1. Competence 2. Autonomy 3. Relatedness and Social Influence

Gamification and Motivation

You may not realize it, but you are likely familiar with the core concepts of motivation through the process of gamification. According to one study, sixty-five percent of American adults play video games, the average age of whom is thirty-three years old, and forty-six percent of whom are female. When you include the casual smartphone app games, most of the people around you are playing games before, after, and during work, on the toilet, and sadly even while sitting across from others at the dinner table.

While we may lament the extent to which games and apps, in general, have invaded our lives, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a slowdown. As our reality becomes more virtual, more non-game apps are starting to use gaming elements. There are apps that help cancer patients track pain,  open-source scientific research problems, teach advanced math, and help you become fitter, all using game elements and interfaces. The reason for the permeation of gaming into all aspects of our lives is twofold: On one hand, marketers tend to add gaming elements to base products in an attempt to make the product more enticing. Most of these apps look like any other but with achievements, points, or badges jury-rigged almost as an afterthought. On the other hand, there is a legitimate psychological interest in the study of why so many people find so much value in playing games without any external benefit and often without any expectation of completing or beating the game.

Gaming offers a window into human motivation. We play games for the sheer pleasure of the game itself, pleasure without the expectation of rewards, fame, or other externally motivating factors. Some researchers have been trying to figure out how to tap into the psychology of gaming for use in other areas such as education, productivity, and health and fitness. The idea is that if people learned, worked, or trained with the same pleasure that they play games, motivation would become a non-issue. Instead, we would go about our tasks with pleasure, and our goals would take care of themselves.

This concept, called gamification, is a potentially powerful tool though it is often misconstrued, and there are some problems with how gamification is most commonly used.  The general idea is that you can “game” a goal by adding elements of game design to your non-game activities. You probably see this with child education toys most often—“make learning fun.” Experts say that there is more to gamification than simply making something dull look like something fun. Simply adding points or badges to an activity doesn’t rely on the driving forces behind gaming motivations. (Deterding, “Gamification: Designing for Motivation.”)

Motivation research tends to separate motivation into two basic categories: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is rewards-based. You might do something you’d rather not if, by doing it, you earn money, notoriety, or good grades. Everyone who has a job they don’t particularly enjoy is familiar with extrinsic motivation. The problem with extrinsic motivation is that it does not generally support long-term goals or goals that require big habit-based changes.

Something like strength training, on the other hand, is an intrinsically motivated activity.  Some few people train and compete for trophies or records, but most lifters lift for the benefits of the training itself; our aim is to improve strength, health, and fitness. This is good because intrinsic motivation, when developed and fostered, is most closely linked to long-term success in just about every possible arena. Internal or intrinsic motivation can be both long-lasting and fruitful. When you value the benefit of being under the bar enough, you will engage in the hardship of getting stronger. While barbell training is attractive to intrinsically motivated people—when it comes time to train, it’s just you and the bar—everybody needs strength. It behooves us to unpack the characteristics of motivation and how they can apply to strength training.

Gamification, as a motivational approach, identifies and uses intrinsically motivating patterns. Games are perhaps one of the most purely intrinsically motivated activities. Not because of points and badges but because they tap into fundamental psychological needs. Indeed, some researchers and game designers are angry at the trend in marketing to add faux game elements without acknowledging the deeper attraction that games have for meeting deep-rooted human needs.

Is this overcomplicating the appeal of games? Games are fun, and that’s why we play them. Right? Proponents of gamification see fun, entertainment, and satisfaction as byproducts. These are the observable results of meeting certain psychological needs.

In circumstances in which most of our basic physiological needs are (more or less) met on a daily basis, people tend to be motivated by intrinsic psychological needs. (Read about the Hierarchy of Needs here.) At the top of the theoretical hierarchy of needs is “Self Actualization,” or the motivation to realize your own potential.

Gamification creates opportunities to fulfill these types of psychological benefits. Psychological benefits lead to behavioral outcomes or changes, and in the case of fitness, behavioral changes lead to physical changes. One game designer identified the core of games as “meaningful choices in the pursuance of interestingly hard goals.” (Deterding, “Gamification.”)

Strength and Motivation

While it isn’t easy to turn strength training into a game, if we break down the psychological benefits identified in gamification theory, we can, perhaps, access intrinsic motivation principles and bring them into our fitness goals. At the heart of most decisions to pick up a barbell is the desire for self-actualization.

Gamified motivation results from three needs:

  1. Competence
  2. Autonomy
  3. Relatedness and Social Influence

You earn feelings of mastery as you improve during the play (competence). Most games allow you to choose your own challenges or how you problem-solve (autonomy). And games often bring you into a common shared experience with others, offering competition or perceived competition with other people in a social circle (relatedness). If we take these as the basic game elements that foster long-term intrinsic motivation, we can begin to apply them to lifting.


Competence or mastery involves two basic pursuits. Knowing how to achieve your goal and creating shorter-term goals that progress you steadily toward bigger, more meaningful goals. The more competent you feel, the more confidence you have in your big goals, and the more likely you will be to pursue them in the long run.

First, create shorter-term goals and “learning goals.” For example, educating yourself on the process of strength training can boost your efforts. When you understand the process (and you believe that it works), you are more likely to value each training session as a necessary component of a bigger plan.

Of course, not everyone has the time or the inclination to start reading up on the finer points of strength training. In those cases, experts and coaches provide surrogate expertise where your own may be wanting. If you have a coach or information source that you trust, they can help build your competence by increasing your efficacy, building confidence in the process over time.


Autonomy comes from setting specific and difficult goals.

Just as with training, when a goal is specific and difficult, it leads to a higher level of performance. You might expect that setting very hard goals would have a negative effect on performance, but the opposite is much more common. (Locke and Latham, “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation,” (“We found a positive, linear function in that the highest or most difficult goals produced the highest levels of effort and performance.”) The negative effects of setting difficult goals come from exhausting the limits of your ability. Even goals that prove impossible in hindsight produce higher performance levels while you chase them.

An objective goal—like a three, four, or five-plate squat or deadlift—may indeed be beyond your ability within a given time, but trying for the objective goal will bring out more effort than assuming that you will fail before you even begin. Specific and difficult goals lead to higher performance than “urging people to do their best.” (Locke and Latham.) “When people are asked to do their best, they do not do so. This is because do-your-best goals have no external referent and thus are defined idiosyncratically.” (Id.) Subjective goals based on your own assessment of ability cannot possibly motivate you to higher levels of performance than specific and difficult goals, even if those goals turn out to be unreachable.

You can’t always know what you are capable of or how long it might take you to reach big lifting milestones. That’s okay, as long as you realize the point of setting your goal. If your goal is a 405 deadlift, for example, you should try to set a challenging timeline for you to reach that goal. But that’s not the only thing you should do. You then need to set smaller goals that, if you meet them, will lead directly to that 405 deadlift. Work backward from your big, 4-plate goal to the present. What are the first goals that will take you from where you are to where you want to be?

Some of the first goals you might consider are consistent training, form goals, and recovery goals. If you’ve missed some training sessions lately, make your first goal to miss zero scheduled training sessions this month. To reach your lifting goal, you may first need to fix something outside of the gym, like your sleep habits or your nutrition: Getting enough protein, fueling your training, and sleeping 8 hours a night will revolutionize your training. Whatever your goal may be, start with the first meaningful change that will bring you closer to it. What if you don’t meet your goal? That’s okay because striving for something specific and difficult will bring you a lot closer than you would have been if you just did your best. It is the chase of a challenging and valuable goal that will bring out the characteristics of intrinsic motivation.

Relatedness and Community

Relatedness and community come from a few different sources. The first is feedback, building mile markers into your goals that allow you to measure your progress and make adjustments. You need external, performance-based assessments of how you are doing that reference your big goals. This is not just a measure of progress, but it is the process that you use to boost your effort when you are lagging behind.

We often shy away from feedback because we fear the negative effects of criticism. If you receive negative feedback, you may worry that it will have a negative impact on your performance because you won’t feel as good about your progress. Research tends to show the opposite effect. Feedback, when it shows that people are below their ideal target, tends to cause them to increase their effort. Combining difficult goals with feedback is more effective than goals alone.

Gaming your goals doesn’t require a video interface, an app, or any kind of external device. The value of feedback comes from how you plan to measure your progress. If you have big lifting goals, set a reasonable pace, making smaller goals your benchmarks for the bigger ones: “plate” goals (milestones dictated by the plates on the bar, such as 95, 135, 185, 225, etc.) and rep goals (lifting a weight for more reps or volume than you have previously done) make excellent forms of feedback that fit into your training plan. Highlight these in your planning and celebrate them as you check them off this year. If you stay on target, you will meet your goal in the long-run. If you start to flag or falter, use this feedback process to make adjustments, keeping your goals both lofty and realistic.

For lifting, feedback starts with your training log, keeping a record of every step of your progress. From there, learn to interpret that data. To help you adjust your training or your expectations as you meet or miss your performance goals.

Communal benefits lie in your shared experiences with other lifters. At Barbell Logic Online Coaching, all our clients are part of an online community. We share information, celebrate triumphs, and work on building community. Finding and staying in touch with your lifting community is a great way to both motivate you and keep your interest high.

Don’t Get Distracted

While gaming motivation can be a great benefit, it is important not to forget your long-term goals. Your early strength gains come quickly, but turning training into a life-long habit takes a lot of work and belief in the value of strength training. (Read: Are You Undervaluing Strength?) Problems with gamification come from the willingness of companies to attach game-like elements to every kind of fad without consideration of your end goal. Points and badges cannot replace intelligent goal-setting and progress.

Strength training takes a hit in the popular modes of gamification. Even with the multitudinous ways of collecting and tracking physical data, no popular product can adequately measure the value of a strength training workout in the context of an overall training plan. (See, e.g., How Many Calories Does Lifting Burn.) Apps and trackers focus on the immediate effect of exercise and not the long-term structured benefit of training.

So, maybe we can’t turn strength training into a fun and interactive video game—at least not yet. You can still game your goals. Pay attention to what motivates you to do things that are long-term and not easily achieved. Focus on the elements that make you feel confident and prioritize the things that give you value. And seek out some people to share that value with. We suggest you start with tracking and setting small goals. Find someone—a friend or a coach—to give you instructions and feedback. Use small milestones to help you hit your big goals. And, most importantly, if you miss a milestone, don’t give up. Let the theme of this year be, commit, plan, and repeat until you reach your goals.

[1] Jonna Koivisto, Juho Hamari, “The rise of motivational information systems: A review of gamification research,” International Journal of Information Management, 45, 191-210 (2019)
[2]  Locke and Latham, “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey” (September 2002 American Psychologist) (quoting Ryan, T.A. “Intentional Behavior,” (Ronald Press 1970))
[3] Sebastian Deterding, “Gamification: Designing for Motivation,” Interactions. 19. 14–17 (2012)




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